Key player in the rise of the Cats: Brian Cook. Photo: John WoudstraIt is 10 years since Geelong chief executive Brian Cook set about the uncomfortably public but ultimately groundbreaking review that would radically alter the fortunes of his under-performing football club.
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The Cats had entered season 2006 with high hopes having narrowly lost the previous year’s semi-final to Sydney and won the pre-season premiership. But after opening the season with two big wins the wheels fell off and, as Geelong lost seven of its next eight games, divisions began to emerge between frustrated players and between the coaches and the fitness department.

From Frank Costa’s generally stable board down, there appeared to be some unrest at every level. The review was announced in July and the spotlight turned to coach Mark Thompson and his future.

With Cook already highly respected, having built and overseen two premierships at West Coast and having significantly reduced Geelong’s crippling debt and stabilised the Cats’ finances, the review according to insiders sealed his legacy as a one of the game’s great administrators.

While every battling club grapples with its own individual set of circumstances it remains baffling that less experienced club chiefs have not moved to pick apart in detail the nuances of the Cook review.

The Cats’ round-nine rival Collingwood presents a stark example of a powerful and successful AFL operation which appears to have lost its way in a football sense despite the best of intentions. While there has rarely been a more unified triumvirate than Eddie McGuire, Gary Pert and Nathan Buckley since the latter took over in 2012, a combination of coaching expertise, recruiting and players’ behavioural standards has somehow been falling short.

It must be said, though, that younger bosses such as Richmond’s Brendon Gale – who has also stabilised his club’s finances but is now facing the mammoth task of reviewing and also making key personnel changes across coaching, recruiting and high performance to achieve the next level at Tigerland – have sought Cook’s counsel from time to time.

In 2006 the Cats chief enlisted just one outside consultant – his old coach David Parkin – and spent the best part of 60 days interviewing close to 60 club stakeholders ranging from first-year players to coaches to player agents. Nineteen of 20 recommendations Cook put to the board were accepted.

The view of the senior players was that if the CEO was prepared to get his hands dirty on the factory floor then the least they could do was speak truthfully. Adamant that Thompson was the right coach, the players were equally adamant that he had become distracted from coaching by a football bureaucratic thicket including list management, fitness, recruiting and IT.

The players themselves, whom Cook believed were good enough and age appropriate to win a premiership, were angry at their lack of success.

Despairing at the stand-off between the coaching and high-performance teams and concerned at poor behavioural standards within their own group, they spoke more frankly than ever before to Cook and each other.

One pivotal meeting at a player’s house led to Matthew Scarlett calling journalist Mike Sheahan in a bid to save Thompson’s job. And in what was a radical call at the time Tom Harley replaced Steven King as captain. The leadership group rewrote its brief and set itself new on and off-field standards, famously suspending Steve Johnson for the first six rounds of the 2007 season.

The Cook recommendations were ratified at a board meeting during 2006 preliminary final weekend and immediately unveiled on an individual basis to senior football media – in the company of an uncomfortable Mark Thompson – at Princes Park on the Sunday of the VFL grand final.

Harley reportedly arrived at King’s house to drive him to the game only to be asked to wait outside while the ruckman and 2006 captain took a phone call. King then walked out to the waiting Harley, shook his hand and congratulated him.

While Thompson survived and went on to coach two premierships over the next three years he remained bitter at being so publicly scrutinised.

Several key personnel lost their jobs with assistant coach Andy Lovell making way for Brenton Sanderson and Paul Haines and Dean Robinson taking over the Cats’ high-performance department.

And Cook could not save football operations boss Garry Davidson despite pushing for him to retain a role at the club, with Neil Balme taking over the top football job. It speaks volumes for all concerned, though, that on the eve of the 2007 grand final Cook, Davidson and Balme dined together over lunch.

The timing was right for Geelong to recalibrate their football operation. First-round draft pick Joel Selwood immediately became a regular senior player and matured as an on-field leader seemingly overnight while more experienced stars Scarlett and Cameron Mooney became fathers and matured accordingly. And the players’ internal review of themselves provided a pivotal cultural change.

Gold Coast and North Melbourne have tried since to lure Cook from Geelong and the fledgling Suns, through the AFL, might have succeeded in 2009 had their offer been marginally more attractive. He also interviewed for the top AFL job in 2014.

Now Cook has committed to Geelong until the end of 2018 overseeing the fourth and potentially fifth stages of the Simonds Stadium redevelopment, an achievement he likened last December to the Bendigo Bank’s bailout that saved the club at the start of the 21st century.

But more intriguing surely remains the transparent, risky and clinical manner in which Cook, now 61, took on the under-performing Cats footballers and their coaches and trainers and bosses in 2006. In the nine years since that restructure Geelong have achieved six top-four finishes, won three flags and missed the finals once. And in the 10th season the Cats are once again a premiership favourite.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.